The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “How can women be taken seriously in a room full of men?” is written by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.
In a room full of men, it can sometimes be hard for a woman to be heard. If you raise your hand, you will be called on, but it doesn’t mean you truly have a seat at the table. There may be times when your points don’t engender a dialogue: A male colleague speaks up and sparks a debate, leaving you wondering why no one heard you say essentially the same thing.
I’ve found that the higher the level of the group you are part of, the more difficult it is to be heard. There are of course many exceptions. But while the days of the “old boys network” are rapidly fading, and there are fewer and fewer settings where a woman’s views don’t count, most women in senior positions will at some point face the challenge of being the only female voice in a room full of men. This can be intimidating for some. But there are a few strategies to help in navigating this situation to make sure your voice and years of experience have the impact they deserve:
Your voice is important, so speak with authority
It’s important to remember that the reason you’re in the room is that you have something to offer. Speak with authority about your area of expertise and make a real contribution to the challenge at hand. While it is not enough, it is table stakes. So, sit forward, step up, and help guide the dialogue.
If no one supports you, redouble your efforts
I never really had a mentor, and I am wistful when I hear people talking about the help they got from someone who encouraged their career. But I once heard a comment from the actress Julia Roberts that stuck with me. While many talk about the importance of mentors, Julia Roberts remarked about the benefits of having no one stand up for you: “…it’s not just great teachers that sometimes shape your life. Sometimes it’s the absence of great teachers that shapes your life and being ignored can be just as good for a person as being lauded.”
She has a point. When you have to fight a bit harder, you really do stretch yourself and have the chance to achieve beyond your potential. And the times you’re most disappointed or let down are often when you rise to the challenge.
Stand out from the rest with what makes you “you”
We all know the phrase, “Clothes make the man.” But in today’s day and age, it’s not clothes, but special qualities, unique knowledge, and a network of relationships that make you stand out. I always felt my background in Chinese and Russian studies, and my language skills in both, gave me an edge with businesses that were trying to break into difficult markets. It was unusual for anyone just starting out in their business career to have familiarity in these markets. I felt that it helped set me apart from others.
Identify what sets you apart, and own it. Nurturing your unique skills will reinforce your character, your personality, and what is special about your point of view.
If all else fails, blaze your own trail
If the setting you’re in is not hospitable to women, even if you do everything right, it might be time to move on. We live in a world where markets are changing at a rapid pace, where business models are transforming, and where there are many opportunities. If you can’t find the way in the environment you are in, be bold and strike out on your own. Chart a new course that’s right for you.